- Dr. Anthony Fauci said in June of 2019 that his nightmare public health scenario was a "respiratory illness that easily spreads, and has a high degree of morbidity and some degree of mortality."
- Less than six months later, the novel coronavirus emerged on epidemiologists' radars in Wuhan, China.
- Now Fauci says he's "so sorry" that he was "so prescient."
- Better public health surveillance systems in the US would go a long way towards curbing the next infectious disease outbreak.
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Dr. Anthony Fauci has arguably been America's top infectious disease expert for 36 years. That's how long he's run the US' National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
So it's not a surprise that he has been saying for a while now that the prospect of a new, contagious infectious disease like the novel coronavirus is one of the things that worries him most.
Just take what he told The Hill's Editor at Large Steve Clemons, in June 2019, during the publication's first "Future of Healthcare Summit," when he was asked about his nightmare public health scenarios.
"As an infectious disease public health person — I mean, there are a lot of other things in society that I worry about, but you don't want my opinion of that, let's talk about infectious diseases — is a respiratory borne illness, that spreads rapidly, that's new, mainly, there's no background immunity in the population, and that almost always turns out to be a brand new pandemic influenza," Fauci said.
"I do worry about that, because when you have a respiratory illness that easily spreads, and has a high degree of morbidity and some degree of mortality, you could have a public health catastrophe."
That's a spot-on prediction (aside from the influenza part), but Fauci still feels bad about just how right he was.
"I'm so sorry that I was so prescient when we had our last interview, Steve, I really am very sorry about that," Fauci said during this year's edition of The Hill's healthcare summit on Thursday. "When we had our conversation last year, I said this is what I would be most worried about. I'm so sorry that it occurred, and occurred so quickly after that interview."
Fauci is not the only one who's been raising this kind of alarm. Bill Gates has said, similarly, that the world needs to prepare for pandemic disease outbreaks in the same serious way that armies prepare for war. Still, the US has whittled away its pandemic public health response capabilities at every level over the past decade.
"Even as we're getting through this and there'll be many, many lessons learned, we've got to for the future, make sure that we don't lose this corporate memory of what we're going through, because we need, obviously, to be better prepared," Fauci said.
The best way to get better prepared for the next pandemic is to take a pragmatic, systematic approach, as Fauci has pointed out.
"You don't want to frighten society, and say 'At any given moment, something is going to come in and destroy society' because when you hear that over and over again … people get inured to that, and they say 'well, you're just trying to frighten us,'" Fauci said last year. "The way you prepare for an outbreak is to preemptively put in place the scientific and public health capabilities to respond. Don't try to guess what the next outbreak is, because you're almost always gonna guess wrong, try to put a fundamental system in place of surveillance."
Many experts stress that a well-coordinated disease surveillance system is exactly what the US is still lacking, and it's a key reason why this pandemic has hit the country so hard.
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